Alan Wake's twisted double Mr Scratch is the creepy highlight in this Night Springs psychological thriller episode
Contains: Moderate Violence, Horror, Sex References and Strong Sustained Psychological Threat
Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a stand-alone digital spin-off for Xbox Live Arcade that acts as an episode of the original game's creepy television show series Night Springs about unexplained phenomena and strange happenings - done in similar fashion in style, narration and audio to The Twilight Zone. For those who played Alan Wake, you'll notice that what the protagonist wrote in a story was happening for real, in a shocking revelation of events that had entered the real world from a dark dimension somewhere in-between what was conceivable and what was completely impossible. In American Nightmare, you'll be in that spooky TV show which revolves around Wake, "the champion of light", fighting his evil double known as Mr Scratch, "the herald of darkness", as he attempts to thwart the fiend from getting to his wife Alice in the real world by doing the only thing he can, and that is finding him, stopping him and rewriting reality. Mr Scratch is introduced early on, and things quickly become clear that preventing him from committing his dangerously powerful intentions is the primary objective in the weird, dark, parallel universe you find yourself venturing through. He is a twisted copy of Alan who taunts and torments him, and because of his intention to be noticed by the main character depicting his evil, you can expect plenty of entertaining interplay between Mr Scratch and Alan when their paths do cross within the intriguing plot which hones a brilliant script. Mr Scratch is an unsettling villain who speaks and acts in a maniacal way, and the disturbing insights into this evil twin are showcased on televisions purposefully placed during the game, with live-action footage making his intentions and actions even more disturbing to witness, and his threatening behaviour is sustained whenever he crops up in person.
The gameplay retains its level of intensity due to the mysterious and malevolent Taken - the prime enemies within Alan Wake's psychologically threatening world. You'll once again require a flashlight and a gun of some kind in order to defeat their masses aswell as a few extra light sources that disperse the light in a greater area of effect (such as flares and flashbang grenades). The Taken are covered in darkness, which protects them from harm. Only by removing the shadows can they become vulnerable to bullets, since blows that would injure or kill a human outright mean nothing to them as long as the darkness persists and entombs their physical form. Their presence is usually quite eerie due to this layer of shadows that smothers them, but aiming at them with light makes them vulnerable as it burns away the darkness, revealing their near-human form beneath. The evil that drives them is still inside them, but now they can be defeated and blasted back to wherever they originated from.
The enemies are smart and consistent with their unfriendly approach, arriving when you might not be expecting an encounter of the monstrous kind, and forcing you to retreat due to their formation that spreads out around you and attempts to ensnare you from the potential safe haven of light sources that equate to your welcome salvation (though luminous source is temporary this time). Commonly equipped with melee weapons or tools and arriving in moderate numbers, you have to be quick to decide what light sources to use and the appropriate weapon to kill them, because once you are surrounded you are as good as dead unless you have a flare handy. Dodging is still a major tactic when they get within slashing distance, and timing your evasion leads to a very satisfying slow motion effect so you can appreciate just how fine the margins were between pursuing your objective further and losing to Mr Scratch before scheduled. There are a pleasing variety of enemies, one in particular that penalises you for using any light sources by splitting the enemy into multiple assailants, continuously multiplying them if you ignore the risk. The only positive to take from splitting them up and producing larger numbers is that each time they split they are weaker than their original state, but even so, stacking the odds against you further by not conquering these malicious enemies in their normal, bigger presence is quite often a crucial mistake you won't want to repeat if you can help it. Another interesting Taken type is one which transfigures to a flock of crows at will, swooping through the dark night and then reverting to a human state to try and get up close.
Although the text above may imply it, Alan Wake's American Nightmare is severely different in the way it isn't a survival horror, and is much more action orientated than the main game. Depending how you look at it, this alteration in gameplay style has it's positives and negatives. It's positively more fast-paced and filled with lots of thrilling encounters with plentiful ammo supply caches, but ultimately isn't a chilling and menacing experience because of the emphasis on action as opposed to dreaded horror scenarios with limited ammo and scarce supply of powerful light-based weapons. The sound effects are identical in a good way, and aside from a couple of minor characters, the voice acting is excellent with splendid turns especially from the antagonist, protagonist and narrator who are the driving force behind the plot's conception.
The graphics are reminiscent of the experience within Alan Wake, with character models and environmental lighting being the striking aesthetics to create a supernaturally charged level of suspense. The environments are nicely detailed and open enough to let you go exploring if you dare for the many worthwhile collectables, while Wake himself has been created handsomely, with plenty of effort gone into little details such as clothing and movement. The atmosphere is an aspect to be content about aswell, with the looming prospect of unaware enemy arrivals keeping you on your toes, though unfortunately the atmosphere isn't contaminated with a foreboding, nerve-jangling tension like seen before, but the action can be blamed for that. However, the same cannot be praised within cutscenes as far as technical achievement is concerned, as the animations look awkwardly stiff and don't fit the quality presented from a gameplay perspective, while some dated facial expressions also detract when the game exhibit's a cutscene.
The single player story mode isn't too long (roughly 6 hours) but to make you return the developer's have made a relentlessly intense arcade mode called Fight till Dawn. You'll be alone, in the darkness, and battling wave after wave of Taken that arrive in all shape and form for as long as you can hold out until sunrise. It's challenging, exciting and terrifying to be stuck with infinitely respawning shadowy monsters out for blood, and by eliminating them you'll earn points. The plan is to earn as much points as you can before dawn breaks (10 minutes), and it can certainly get very intense as you fight them back with your trusty flashlight and whatever weapons you can find within the environment. Locked cases also benefit players who played through the story mode and found a good amount of manuscript pages, since the better guns require more pages to unlock. To increase your score at the end of the round however, is a trick, that requires skill and courage. By dodging enemy attacks successfully you'll increase your multiplier, but that means you have to let them get close. But to be brutally honest, they'll inevitably swarm you soon enough once the waves of enemy get tougher and bigger, and you'll resort to whatever light sources you can scavenge in order to survive the haunting night. There are a good variety of maps that are all well designed and nice to look at, whilst all maintaining a spooky feel to them as you blast away the evil forces that spawn there, and so Fight till Dawn is a really fun game mode that keeps you coming back to better your scores aswell as your friends.
Combat representation and superb in-game visuals aside, everything about this standalone non-sequel feels different to it's exclusive and revolutionary counterpart experience - Alan Wake. The atmosphere has a sense of From Dusk Till Dawn embedded into it (without the gore), the action has a Grindhouse style about it (menu presentation too), while the tone of the story and setting could have been pulled from a Stephen King novel, with psychological threats and occasionally unsettling horror vibes acting as a vehicle for something suspenseful with twists and turns without warning, in which you get stuck in a time loop and must push forward determinedly to escape it. It's unfortunate the changes were made, but afterall, this isn't a sequel, merely a standalone package for more of the same light vs. darkness, good vs. evil thrills the main game was so renowned for, and that is the most proactive way of evaluating it. It isn't as scary, it isn't as long, and it isn't as good, but it's worth playing for the terrific writing and engrossing narrative that is strung out so well and provides plenty of well spoken dialogue from the writer protagonist, twisted antagonist and the creepy Night Spring's narrator, aswell as the same cool manuscript page extracts to be found that include more about the plot and sometimes events foreseen ahead of the path to make you think twice when moving through the hostile darkness and the menacing shadowy figures that evolve out of it.
Story - 3/5
Characters - 3/5
Gameplay - 4/5
Graphics - 5/5
Sound - 4/5
Controls - 4/5
Atmosphere - 3/5
Enemy AI - 4/5
Length - 2/5
Replay Value - 3/5
OVERALL SUMMARY - 8/10
Good Points: Antagonist Mr Scratch is an awesomely twisted double of the casual and likeable writer protagonist, Story conception is mysterious and intriguing, Voice acting is mostly great, Terrific writing for both the narrative and collectable manuscript extracts, Menacing enemies increase the tension in the profound combat system, Visually striking environments, Fight till Dawn arcade mode is intense fun.
Bad Points: Heavier focus on action than survival horror lessens the chill factor, Some voice acting is flat, Awkward animations and dated facial expressions in cutscenes.